Memories of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens still give Marta a twinkle in her eye. Sixteen months ago, Brazil battled through to the final of the Olympic football tournament, only to be narrowly thwarted by USA after extra-time. "Winning the silver medal was the greatest sporting moment of my career. It was historic - the people in Brazil ran out into the streets," says the Brazilian prodigy, replaying the finest hour in her career to date.

The 20-year-old's rise to fame is something of a fairy tale. Marta started playing football at seven years of age in her small home town of just 13,000 inhabitants, Dois Riachos in northern Brazil. "I was surrounded by boisterous boys and we used to play in the street - but they didn't want to play with me," she recalls. Her mothered supported her - much to the chagrin of her less football-crazed brothers.

At 14 she left for Rio de Janeiro to begin her career in earnest, playing for Vasco da Gama and later São Martins. She shot to prominence at the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship Canada 2002, when she stood out above her peers though aged just 16 at the time. A classic, attack-minded number 10, she bagged a total of six goals in Canada, finishing third highest scorer.

Umea adventure
A year later, she would inspire the senior Brazilian national team to the quarter-finals of the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003. In March 2004, she signed for Swedish club Umea IF, one of the most exclusive addresses in women's football, where she was to deputise for the injured Hanna Ljungberg.

She proved a worthy replacement too, leading her side to the UEFA Cup title. The move to Europe was a logical transition for Marta as Brazil lacks a professional women's league. "There are not the same opportunities to train every day," she says of her home country, which has just regional championships.

After an incredible 2004 season, 2005 has continued in a similar vein. With Sweden's Damallsvenskan, she scored 21 goal in 22 games last season, sharing the title of top scorer with Therese Lundin of Malmö FF. Along with Ljungberg, she was also one of the main instigators in guiding Umea to their first championship in three years.

That achievement saw her finish second only to Birgit Prinz in the voting for the 2005 FIFA Women's World Player of the Year, and this season - with her formidable partnership with the fit-again Ljungberg back to its best - Marta has played a key role in firing Umea into their fourth UEFA Women's Cup final. In the semi-final, poor Kolbotn IL simply had no answer to her speed and trickery and duly succumbed to a record 11-1 aggregate defeat, and Arsenal - Umea's final opponents - will have noted with concern that four of the Swedes' goals came from the unerring left boot of their talismanic Brazilian.

Such achievements are merely a reminder, were any needed, of why Umeå have proved so determined to hang on to their prize asset despite strong overtures from US champions Indiana, and they also go some way to explaining the Swedish outfit's steadfast and controversial refusal to allow their star player to take part in this year's FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Russia.

Marta, who had won the adidas Golden Ball at the previous edition in Thailand and finished as the leading scorer in the South American qualifying competition in Chile with an astonishing 14 goals, was desperate to lead her country's bid for the world title, but her employers stood firm. "The fans are the ones who've suffered the most," Brazil's coach, Jorge Barcelos, observed during the tournament. "It's like the World Cup without Ronaldinho or Zinedine Zidane - it's just not the same."

'Frighteningly dominant'
However, in an interview with earlier this year, Mia Hamm - a legendary voice of experience - pointed out that the 20-year-old, who stands at just 1.60m, still has many years and major tournaments ahead of her.

"Marta is one of the best players I have ever played with or against," said the US icon. "She still has a long way to go, we're still talking about a baby, she's just a kid still. A long way to go or not, I would take her on my team any day. She can dribble, go right at defenders and she has the heart of a true competitor. If she stays healthy and surrounds herself with the right people, she's going to become frighteningly dominant."  

Asked why she chose football, Marta admits: "It was not a conscious decision. I just wanted to play football naturally." Besides the beautiful game, Marta also enjoyed Futsal and handball, where she played in goal. And she is no doubt as to where her exceptional technique was developed: "That comes from Futsal. I used to play tournaments with boys."

Even in her free time, football is high on the agenda. Marta likes to prove that she is just as invincible on the Playstation as she is on pitch. She also enjoys chatting with friends in Brazil, wandering through Umeå or meeting her team-mates for a coffee.

Her friend and international team-mate Cristiane says: "I am a huge fan of Marta's game. She can do unbelievable things with the ball at her feet. I admire her style and her success because she works hard and has made a lot of sacrifices." Who could begrudge her if all of that hard work was rewarded with the game's greatest accolade on 18 December...?